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Digitalisation finds its way into Chilean mining

Chile, the world’s leading producer of copper, is faced with declining productivity, environmental protection concerns and strikes. New technologies are helping the mining sector to become more competitive by lowering costs and increasing safety. Digitalisation is only now making its way slowly into the industry. Some German companies are working on the development and introduction of new innovations.

Driverless trucks, GPS monitoring, fuel-saving route optimisation – at first glance the Chilean mining sector appears to meet international standards. “Some of the technology is there, but it does not have a culture of innovation. Some aspects of communication have been fully developed; electronic components less so,” reports Peter Klaus, former Managing Director of Fourthane. The Chilean company develops polymer-based repair materials for rubber conveyor belts as well as lining materials for mills, hoppers and transfer points in the bulk handling industry and was the recipient of the Avonni innovation award.

Operation and planning in the Chilean mining industry are faced with the challenge of increasing productivity and efficiency, adhering to environmental protection directives and social responsibility as well as increasing safety and quality in the working environment. Following a six-week-long labour dispute in the world’s largest copper mine in Escondida in spring 2017, the call for automated solutions gained even more momentum. The long strike cost BHP just under 1 bn US$.

The “Alta Ley” programme, a public-private initiative by state business development cooperation Corfo (Corporación de Fomento de la Producción) and the Ministry of Mining, is designed to improve the industry’s competitiveness. This includes the development of a supply industry that produces innovative technologies with larger technological capacities. Detonation, automation and process technologies are in particularly high demand. The Advanced Mining Technology Center AMTC is an important component of the national mining roadmap for 2015 to 2035. Founded in 2009 at the country’s oldest public university, the Universidad de Chile, AMTC receives state funds on the condition that it works closely with the private sector. The laboratory develops technologies that are used in mining but can also be transferred to other industries.

One of the objectives of the roadmap is to reduce the risk of retention devices for sludge tanks breaking. AMTC is developing a system for this that generates data regarding the chemical composition and stability of the sludge tanks in order to send warnings to employees, authorities and communities. Further projects are aimed at minimising emissions, e. g., with the removal of arsenic from water.

A robot that accelerates mine mapping is designed to reduce downtimes. In order to optimise extraction, sensors need to be continuously recalibrated. This is currently carried out manually, which interrupts production for several hours every time. AMTC has developed prototypes for a robot that takes care of this task while production is under way. Some mining companies are already using the maps produced in this way.

A hyperspectral technology for analysing images across an electromagnetic spectrum will also minimise waiting times. The software detects various levels of rock, identifies samples of the available minerals and produces heat maps. Technicians can then mark certain types of mineral within the image. Geologists analyse the samples on site in real time to make instant decisions.

The research centre has also developed a technology that enables navigation without GPS. Most autonomous vehicles use GPS and therefore require several simultaneous signals. Until now, HGVs were unable to manoeuvre if just one of the signals dropped out.

A further product comes from German mining machinery manufacturer GHH, which has developed a self-driving LHD vehicle that extracts rock from underground mines. The model features a mobile loader that enables it to manoeuvre along narrow roads. This means that it can be used for vertical drilling, which is often the case in medium-sized mines in Chile and Canada.

Software company HiKey Resource, with headquarters in Australia and an IT hub in Germany, has developed a piece of management software for project and field service companies in the mining, energy and construction industry. Founder Sven Petrich is currently working with members of his team from Santiago. While working in Sydney some time ago, it came to his attention that Hightech was only being used for raw material extraction and not for management purposes. “For companies with 100 employees, the stack of paper for traditional time sheets reaches 2.3 m a year and weeks pass by until the working hours are evaluated by head office”, explains Business Development Manager Florian Kohlhammer in an interview.

The Time2L product is already on the market in Australia. Employees submit their time sheets digitally and their supervisors approve them with a simple click. Following approval, the data for all employees is available immediately in the central system. The start-up company also promotes the fact that payroll accounting is faster and error-free and that there is no chance of employees forging their time sheets as the company can access the time data in real time. Since the data is assigned to the respective project, this provides an overview as to which hours are posted to which jobs, which makes it easier to tell whether or not a project made a profit.

As well as target/actual comparisons, safety regulations can also be integrated. If employees are at risk of violating breaks between shifts or the maximum number of working hours per day, the time tool sends a warning to the employee in question and their supervisor. Soon, the new generation of resource management software will include both personnel and equipment and send notifications as to which vehicle is needed when and any special knowledge required by the driver.

Critics are warning that increased automation in mining will put jobs at risk. By contrast to a proportion of the gross domestic product of 8.1 % in 2016, this now represents just a 2.1 % proportion of total employment. This is increasing the pressure on the sector to create more jobs and pay higher wages.

Industry representatives, however, argue that the human workforce continues to be irreplaceable in both underground mines and surface mines. The use of robots and autonomous vehicles improves both safety and the quality of life of the workers. One example is the risk of flooding, which in the past brought some mines to a complete standstill. Autonomous vehicles enable the machine to be removed and cleaned in the event of a flood and for work to continue. (GTAI/Si.)